There was an argument about keeping libraries open. Kids who didn’t have computers at home could do their schoolwork. People could use the computers to look for jobs or apply for unemployment. This led to arguments about putting library workers at risk. And whether you could apply for unemployment or do your schoolwork on a cell phone. Which led to arguments about whether everybody has a cell phone. Or almost everybody. But was it a smart phone? And what about wi-fi? And haven’t you heard about the digital divide? And then it got insulting. As it does. Pretty soon people are throwing things.
This was all on Facebook, of course. I’m trying to include Facebook in my social distancing regime – no more than six minutes, once or twice a day. But it’s tough. It’s like the comment threads in the New York Times. I tell myself not to look, but then I can’t help it. Predictable and unilluminating, but so unsatisfyingly addictive. ("If only Bernie..." "How could anybody have voted for..." "You libtards will never learn..." "Just wait until November..." "No open borders..." "But... her emails!") For years we’ve been using “virus” to describe how things move through the internet. Now we discover how apt the metaphor is. Insidious infection of the mind. Symptoms include: Inventing spurious arguments to fling balefully at people we’ve never met, but who have opinions that are different from our own. Imagining monsters because of one thoughtless remark, weapons at the ready. Squabbling over who owes what to whom, which of us are the righteous and who are despicable.
I put the phone down and pick up the book I’ve been trying to read. Don Quixote. I left off just as the beautiful Dorotea is telling her #metoo story. Distrustful at first of Don Fernando’s passionate promises of marriage and everlasting bliss, she argues with herself, finally persuades herself that he’s telling the truth and it’ll be a match she never would have imagined possible. She gives herself to him. Next thing you know, having satisfied his passion, he’s gone off to marry Lucinda, who then threatens to kill herself at the altar because she’s still in love with Cardenio. Cardenio, not realizing her devotion, thinks he’s been betrayed and has been wailing out his misfortunes and misery. Then, at the urging of the priest and the barber (hang in there with me), Dorotea pretends to be the Princess Micomiconia in order to trick Quixote into going back home, once he’s eviscerated the wineskin that he believes is the giant who’s been threatening her. Wine all over the floor, Don Quixote triumphant.
I haven’t read Quixote since college. The only reason I picked it up a week or so ago is that I'd been writing about some of the books that have been totems for me. I mean the actual individual physical volumes that have come my way through the years, that have meaning for me as the objects they are as much as for the words they contain. This one is a 1947 edition that I found in a used bookstore in Milwaukee many years ago. Illustrated by Salvador Dali. I even remembered where it was among the greatly disordered bookshelves that line half the walls of our house. Browsed the marvelous drawings and colored plates and decided to give it a read.
I’ve been spending an hour or two a day with it (when I can pull myself from the screens). It’s so weirdly contemporary. I can’t decide if I’m encouraged by that (civilization has survived the loss of its illusions before) or just depressed (have we learned nothing in 400 years?).
It’s not all that different from Facebook. The tilting at windmills. Fantasizing wineskins into lascivious giants. Alternate facts. Characters trapped in their delusions. And then getting into fights that resolve nothing and leave the protagonists with aching heads. Whose truth will prevail? Is that a princess or a peasant? A warrior or a fool? At least there’s not a comment thread.